The PAC 12 failed to meet expectations in 2015, and key out-of-conference losses combined with the conference’s tendency to cannibalize kept teams out of the National Championship race. We’ll use advanced stats to project performance and figure whether these teams are headed in the right direction or the wrong one. This week we will focus on the South, and in particular figure out where the Utes are going to land.
We’re going to use two approaches to sort the PAC 12 South. The first is advanced team metrics; FPI, F/+, Massey, and the AP will give us a sense of how good these teams really were, and calculating percentage returning stats in key areas will give us an idea of whether we can expect them to improve or take a step back. I’ve sorted the teams into four categories:
Win a Game?- This category is reserved for teams that could conceivably lose every conference game. They lack basic talent and coaching in a way that calls the team’s basic competence into question.
Win Some Games- These teams fill out the middle of a conference. They aren’t expected to win national accolades, but should beat truly bad teams almost every time and have a shot to pick off better teams.
Win Any Game- These teams are a threat to anyone in the conference when they step on the field, even the powerhouses. Although they aren’t expected to compete for a conference title, no one is sleeping on them.
Win Every Game?- These teams usually start out the season ranked and end it the same way. They have a decent shot of not losing a single game, and that puts them in the playoff hunt.
A word on Utah’s projection: these numbers project the Utes low. Way low. Low enough that you are all going to be mad at me. If I’m eyeballing this team, knowing what I know, I truly think they will contend for a PAC 12 title this year. This segment isn’t about eyeballs, though. I’ve got an obligation to tell you what the numbers say, and they urge extreme caution about being bullish on the Utes. This is all to say:
“Please don’t egg my house.”
PAC 12 South
Win a Game?
I’m not putting anyone in this category. Colorado, as you will see below, is projected for substantial improvements and no one else is likely to slip quite this far.
Win Some Games
Progress: Step Forward. This is a really good look for the Buffs, who return virtually everyone of importance except Nelson Spruce. I project them to creep up into a positive scoring differential and make a run at respectability. If they can’t do it this year, there’s no one left to blame but the coaching staff.
Projection: The team is trending in the right direction, but their schedule isn’t. Colorado State and @Michigan are tough non-conference foes, and the North schedule isn’t forgiving, either. I expect this team to pick off two or three opponents you wouldn’t expect, but not to make any noise in the division. 70% confidence they get 4 or 5 wins. 4.5-7.5
Progress: Step Back. ASU has to replace virtually their entire passing game, and takes big hits on defense as well. They weren’t great in 2015, so this promises to be a troubling year. One has to wonder if Todd Graham won’t find himself on the hot seat.
Projection: The challenges they faced in 2015 look to increase this year. If it weren’t for a cushy out of conference schedule and a North run that misses Stanford they would be hard pressed to make a bowl game at all. I’ve got 70% confidence they get to 6 wins. 6-6
Progress: Step Back. The stats just don’t justify the rosier projections the Utes are getting from the eyeball test. The Utes offense has been gutted and they lost a number of critical players on defense as well. Virtually every key position is a question mark, and you have to project some of those questions to be answered in the negative.
Projection: I tried to talk myself into something that wouldn’t infuriate Ute fans, but I just couldn’t do it. The Utes get some beneficial home games and there isn’t an out of conference game they won’t win (see what I did there?), but the gauntlet of the PAC 12 schedule requires a conservative projection. When power rankings come out, you’ll see that I’ve got a high opinion of our Utes, but from an advanced stats perspective, I’ve got 70% confidence they get 7 wins. 7-5
Win Any Game
Progress: Step Forward. The Wildcats bring plenty of experienced players back on both sides of the ball and could give some trouble to the top of the conference if they put everything together. A few key losses here and there on defense might create problems, but Arizona looks to seamlessly transition from 2015 to 2016.
Projection: Provided the Wildcats can knock off BYU, they should start off strong, but they’ve got a tough draw from the North that could drive their win total down substantially. Despite projecting out to be a pretty good team, the schedule is just too tough to give me more than 70% confidence they get 7 or 8 wins. 7.5-4.5
Progress: Stand Firm. The loss of Kessler’s experience at quarterback stings, but USC remains loaded in every other area and should contend against all but the most challenging opponents. They were in a pretty good place at the end of last year and should hang tough in that spot.
Projection: USC has an absolutely brutal schedule; they take on Alabama, Notre Dame, and Utah State out of conference and have drawn the toughest possible North slate- Cal, Stanford, Oregon, and Washington. They should be a pretty good team this year, but they are going to take some losses in that meat grinder. I’ve got 70% confidence they get 8 or 9 wins. 8.5-3.5
Win Every Game
Progress: Step Forward. A lackluster record didn’t hold back the Bruins from a strong advanced statistical showing in 2015, and they return every major piece but one running back. ‘Chosen’ Rosen is back to run the offense and UCLA should improve in every area. Look out for this squad.
Projection: UCLA’s non-conference schedule is not insurmountable, and they dodge Washington and Oregon in the North. There are quite a few potential pit falls, but if they are as good as this system projects them to be they should make short work of all but the very toughest teams on the schedule. I’ve got 70% confidence they pick up 10 or 11 wins. 10.5-1.5.
My instincts put Utah near the top of this division, but those numbers are positively ugly. To compete, Utah is going to have to replace an entire offense with one that isn’t just as good, but actually better than the one that was in place in 2015. The Utes have lost major talent on defense as well, and while we project improvement in the secondary and along the line, it was linebackers who buttered the Utes’ bread last year.
As much as any fan, I want to slap a ‘ten wins or bust’ sticker on this article. I haven’t heard Whit talk like this during fall camp about an offense, well... ever. Troy Williams looks like a freak of nature and I think the WR corps has more talent than in 2015. I’ve learned not to question Whit’s ability to reload on defense. All that said, I just can’t shake the feeling these numbers give me; that Ute fans are setting themselves up for disappointment.